Death's Following: Mediocrity, Dirtiness, Adulthood, Literature

Death's Following: Mediocrity, Dirtiness, Adulthood, Literature

Death's Following: Mediocrity, Dirtiness, Adulthood, Literature

Death's Following: Mediocrity, Dirtiness, Adulthood, Literature


Almost all twentieth-century philosophy stresses the immanence of death in human life - as drive (Freud), as the context of Being (Heidegger), as the essence of our defining ethics (Levinas), or as language (de Man, Blanchot). In Death's Following, John Limon makes use of literary analysis (of Sebald, Bernhard, and Stoppard), cultural analysis, and autobiography to argue that death is best conceived as always transcendentally beyond ourselves, neither immanent nor imminent. Adapting Kierkegaard's variations on the theme of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac while refocusing the emphasis onto Isaac, Limon argues that death should be imagined as if hiding at the end of an inexplicable journey to Moriah. The point is not to evade or ignore death but to conceive it moretruly, repulsively, and pervasively in its camouflage: for example, in jokes, in logical puzzles, in bowdlerized folk songs. The first of Limon's two key concepts is adulthood: the prolonged anti-ritual for experiencing the full distance on the look of death. His second is dirtiness, as theorized in a Jewish joke, a logical exemplum, and T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday": In each case, unseen dirt on foreheads suggests theinvisibility of inferred death. Not recognizing death immediately or admitting its immanence and imminence is for Heidegger the defining characteristic of the "they," humanity in its inauthentic social escapism. But Limon vouches throughout for the mediocrity of the "they" in its dirty and ludicrousadulthood. Mediocrity is the privileged position for previewing death, in Limon's opinion: practice for being forgotten. In refusing the call of twentieth-century philosophy to face death courageously, Limon urges the ethical and aesthetic value of mediocre anti-heroism.


As the crisis of Catch-22 approaches, just before Yossarian must choose whether to sell out to the Army or flee it, he has a dream while under an anesthetic. the novel, to this point, has been radically antipsychological—what use is the diagnosis of paranoia, for example, if everyone is in fact shooting at you?—and Yossarian, on Heller’s behalf, has delighted in concocting dreams to placate or frustrate psychoanalysts. But he is frightened by his one actual dream, and feels the urgency of plumbing its recesses.

A hand with sharp fingers shook him roughly awake [presumably in
his dream]. He turned and opened his eyes and saw a strange man
with a mean face who curled his lip at him in a spiteful scowl and

“We’ve got your pal, buddy. We’ve got your pal.”

Yossarian turned cold and faint and broke into a sweat.

“Who’s my pal?” he asked when he [presumably awakening for
real] saw the chaplain sitting where Colonel Korn had been sitting.

“Maybe I’m your pal,” the chaplain answered.

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